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Nebraska...Our Towns


Dawes County

Dakota Sioux and Chadronites gather in front of Nellie Woodard's dry goods store in the Nelson Opera House building
Indians from Pine Ridge Reservation pass the Blaine Hotel and parade down Second Street. (ca late 1890s)
A banquet at the Rink Opera House around 1912. (Photo made from a glass plate found when the building that housed the Graves Studio was destroyed in 1973.)
First National Bank in the 1920s, in the Coffee-Pitman Building, owned by C.F.Coffee, and its present location.
Stake driving ceremony on June 15, 1911, at the future site of Chadron State Normal School (now Chadron State College) with state normal board members and local dignitaries.
Chadron from the air. Main Street in the center with the college in the foreground. (ca 1930)

Chadron is located in the northern part of the panhandle. Few places in Nebraska offer the unique topography enjoyed by the residents of this town with its forested hills of the Pine Ridge to the south and east, and the open expanse of the high plains to the north and west.

The name evolved from that of Louis Chartran, who ran a trading post on the creek. Through spelling changes it became "Chadron." Many artifacts of this early period are preserved at the museum just east of town. "Fur Trade Days," a annual summer event, commemorates the community's tie to this segment of history.

The cattlemen's arrival ushered in the much-loved "cowboy era." These cattle outfits brought into the area many of the people who helped forge the towns of western Nebraska. The greatest influence however was the Homestead Act which moved "the frontier" west of the Sandhills.

In 1884 the Fremont, Elkhorn, & Missouri Valley Railroad pushed west from Valentine. The plan was to lay one line to Wyoming and a branch line north to the Black Hills. With knowledge of what the railroad was going to do, some enterprising people established a town at a point where Chadron Creek flows into the White River. If, indeed, this would be at the division point of the new rail line, the town would be "a sure thing" for success. While it was not the only location vying for the honor, the town site company did not buy Fannie O'Linn's location, even if she did have a post office. On August 1, 1885, when lots went on sale, the new town was "Chadron."

The town grew rapidly with businesses, homes, churches, a fine public school, and an academy supported by the Congregational Church. In a few years, the population was well over 2,000, with reportedly more than its share of lawyers, real estate agents and saloons.

All is not "growth and glory." A downward trend started with the Panic of 1893, escalated because of a lack of rain causing crops to fail. To offset this, a 1,000 mile horse race from Chadron to Chicago was organized. While it created a great deal of interest all along the rail line, not much happened to stem the tide of bad times.

By 1900 the town had lost half its population and things were in disrepair. The turning point came in 1911 when, through the efforts of Charles Coffee and others, Chadron was named the site of the new state normal school. This has evolved into Chadron State College, still one of the economic and social strong points.

The population increased in the 1920's to over 5,000 but the Depression, which impacted the whole area in the '30's, caused another out-migration. Chadron still fared better than Dawes County in general and by 1940 it was growing again. The population has grown and appears to have stabilized at about 6,000.

Agriculture is not the only economic factor effecting the town. Other factors have provided a broadened base. The first such advantage was winning the election to become the county seat. Soon thereafter it became the site of the U.S. Land Office for a time, bringing people to town and "putting it on the map." When James Good secured this location as the first state park, it didn't show immediate promise, but Chadron State Park has become an important tourist facility -- a business in itself. In 1965 the Job Corp center in the Pine Ridge country was located in Chadron. It benefits the town through community and regional services and the many jobs it provides. In 1966 the National Forest Service moved its office from Lincoln to Chadron.

The town is again dealing with the problems facing the economic health of rural America. Agri-business has suffered and the railroad, though it remains a major economic force, does not wield the power it once did. Chadron State College enjoys a steady enrollment and an influx of "non-traditional" students (adults back for retraining in new careers). Recreation and travel grow with increasing potential and promise.

Chadron's success and stability is due to its ability to develop a broad-based economy. Many individuals have helped to bring "impossible dreams" to this far western town. This is what helps Chadron to keep going when some other towns face a less optimistic future.

By Jon L. Olsen, 711 Bordeaux, Chadron, 69337